The tragic fires sweeping through southern California have resulted in dozens of deaths and have brought out only the best of the best to help contain the rampant flames. While many of the best include the Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Fire Departments, it also includes local prisoners.
Several thousand prisoners throughout the state have volunteered for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation volunteer firefighting program, which entails prisoners taking on the role of conservation specialists. When they are providing hard physical labor such as cutting down trees, helping in the upkeep of state parks and assisting in tasks meant to protect areas from floods, these inmates only earn $2 a day. If they happen to be taking their stances on the front lines with highly trained California wildfire fighting professionals, they earn $1 an hour.
While many are reasonably terrified for the lives of California civilians caught in these wildfires the prisoners are fighting, there has been little conversation about prisoners who are putting their own lives at risk. Despite the influx of human rights protests and advocation for equality being that the year is 2018, slave labor is still very much in full force.
As previously reported by CNBC, prison firefighter advocates claim that along with saving the state millions of dollars every year in funding career firefighters, the program actually helps prisoners prepare for a career in the firefighting industry. While that is a nice intention, California law prohibits former prisoners from obtaining an EMT license – a requirement to become a firefighter in the state – such a career is actually impossible.
The danger in permitting such a program is not that it provides much needed help to fight devastating fires throughout the state, but that it puts an already highly disadvantaged group into a disadvantaged situation that can likely cause lifelong medical issues and can even prove fatal. Being in the wake of intense fire and smoke can result in severe lung and heart complications and intense reactions in the ears, nose and throat that last for decades. Considering California Correctional Health Care Services only allocated $26,275 to the medical, dental and mental maintenance of prisoners in the entire state of California, there is hardly room for serious medical assistance if it was needed.
And of course, there is the issue of the money these prison workers earn. Even if one of these prisoners happens to be on the front lines 12 hours a day for a week, they will still have only earned $84, which is barely enough to cover getting basic needs such as deodorant, toothpaste, razors other hygiene items, and additional food. If that prisoner is a woman, much of that money will be lost to tampons or other feminine hygiene products. If the prisoner is responsible for providing for their family, which many are, that money would hardly put a dent in the family’s total income. That amount of money is negligent to the well-being of the prisoner.
Several firefighters have died within 2018 alone battling the wildfires that have taken over much of California and a few of those deaths are inmates. With the Santa Ana winds adding fuel to the fire, there is no telling how much damage the state’s slave labor system will have on the incarcerated population.